Composition and Performance

I once wrote a long meditation on the idea of errors. Tennis commentators record unforced errors as part of explaining the status of a close match. A baseball shortstop who misplays one ball out of a hundred might win a Gold Glove, but missing five balls out of a hundred might cost his job. I compared that against a friend who’s a professional clarinetist, playing thousands of notes per hour with maybe one bum note all evening.

I think about this a lot as a writer, engaged in an art form that’s more errors than clean fielding. And I console myself with knowing that’s just part of the nature of composition. We strike through, we delete, we shift order and find alternative words, toss entire scenes. And that’s not just at day’s end; every sentence is subject to continual revision, almost unnoticed, the delete key just another tool on the keyboard. Performance requires that errors be made offstage, in the rehearsal hall; the daily experience of composition is nothing but errors.

People who don’t write often think that good writers are naturally gifted. Well, we kind of are, just because we’ve read so much and practiced so much that the reflexes are baked in. I’ve been listening to people talk since I was tiny. I made a living for a lot of years by listening to people talk. So I got to be pretty good at capturing the specifics of word choice that mark individual speakers. But writers also revise. Endlessly. Constantly. Readers don’t see that.

So I thought maybe today I’d show you just how bad things can be when they’re left alone in draft form. I need to write a three-paragraph description of the novel I just finished. Here’s the first pass:

Kurt Genier had been a star, from grade school through his successful PhD. When his academic career failed to gain hold, he followed his wife Megan to her own faculty job in rural Vermont—a trailing spouse far away from friends, from scholarly life, from the diversity of an urban university—and struggled for the first time to invent an identity aside from the teacher’s pet he’d always been.

But when their closest friends were deported, Kurt and Megan both were called upon to invent new selves, in the service of a child they’d never met. They discovered strengths and allegiances they had never imagined, fought against the weight of bureaucracy and habit, defended an unfamiliar family life from those for whom different meant dangerous.

Trailing Spouse explores the question of whom a child belongs to, and how the interests of individuals, families and cultures collide. It asks us to consider who we are, when who we thought we were has collapsed. And it asks how far we would go to protect the future of another.

So, first, some truth in advertising. Like software, this has already gone through some beta testing. I tried to just write it front to back and leave it alone, but the reflexes of revision are so ingrained that I changed quite a few things on the fly without even noticing . So this is something like version 1.8: still in its first generation, but with an awful lot of patches installed.

And like first-generation software, this writing is pretty bad. I’m glad it exists, because I’ve got something to think about, but every bit of that is terrible, right from the first sentence. “Kurt Genier had been a star, from grade school through his successful PhD.” Yes, I want to introduce the protagonist early, but that sentence ends on the wrong note. PhD is not the point of that sentence; the point of that sentence is that he was a star. And it’s bland, non-specific. So here’s a 2.0 version: From grade-school spelling through his top-tier PhD, Kurt Genier had always been an academic star. (That’s actually version 2.2; I had something in there about twenty years of stardom, but I couldn’t make it rhythmically fit anywhere, and people have a rough sense of how long it would take to go from grade school through doctoral program anyway, so I took it back out. But it still felt like it needed bit more emphasis on the consistency of his success, so I put in always instead.)

Lots of those sentences end wrong. …struggled for the first time to invent an identity aside from the teacher’s pet he’d always been. Teacher’s pet is the best image in there, dude! Close with that! The contrast between different and dangerous may be the only good sentence conclusion out of the seven. And the sentences go on forever. Seven sentences for 176 words, an average of 25 words. Please…

It’s also awful because it sounds like an essay. Look at the verbs! followed… struggled… called upon to invent… discovered… explores… asks… I mean, I know Kurt’s a bookish guy, but geez, can he find some more vigorous verbs? It’s like a literary criticism convention in there! All I’m missing is interrogate, disrupt, and grapple with, and I’d fill the whole MLA bingo card. That whole thing has three good verbs: failed, fought and defended. The rest are cringing apologies. It’s a pitch for people who think that Monterey Jack is just a little too tangy.

Anyway, the book is better than that, because I’ve been working on the book for a year, and I’ve been working on this pitch for three broken-up hours. The book is, like, on version 12. It’s stable, most of the glitches are gone, and it’s got way better functionality without having lost the core of its intentions. By the time I’m ready to share this pitch more broadly, it’ll be on version 4 or 5, and won’t look much like this at all.

So please accept my embarrassment as a gift. As with The PhDictionary, I offer my errors as a platform for you to launch from.